Learning from failure: the paradox

Disclaimer: I probably use a derivative of the word failure 25–30 times throughout the post, noted.

Failure is terrible.

It’s true, failing flat out sucks. There are few things more heart wrenching in life than seeing yourself or your company flop. All of that time and money, out on the curb and gone to waste. But who wants to read about that? That would make for one boring story, because let’s face it: Everyone fails every once in a while. Luckily, that is not the complete reality.

Failure is not the worst thing that can happen to you.

But let’s get things straight. I do not see a need to parade around and celebrate my failures. But I do believe that learning from failure is crucial because failure is inevitable. Though, what could be worse than failing?

In the American school system, a 57% is generally an “F” and a 75% is the average, a “C”.

A “C” allows you to pass the class while F prohibits you from moving on. One, demoralizing; the other, sufficient. Though, I argue that failing is more beneficial than scoring in the average.

Yes, failure>mediocrity.

The reality of life is that it is impossible to always finish at the top. There will be times where you lie to the left of the 99th percentile. But how bad is bad, and what do we consider to be a failure?

Failure, at least how we define it in school, has always meant under 60%. Failing in middle school meant having to stay 15 minutes past the bell to relaunch my baking soda & vinegar bottle rocket. In high school, it meant missing the homecoming weekend to redo my physics lab. And now, in college, it meant missing the party of the semester to retype my Writing 1 essay.

Sad? Yes. Agonizing? No.

Throughout my 15 years of formal schooling I never had an opportunity to accept and admit defeat in the classroom. I place that blame, for the most part, on the structure of schooling. The nature of schooling breeds mediocrity. Students are often incentivized to be average: on assignments, projects, and tests. In middle school, teachers reward students who have just passing grades with shiny stickers. In high school, the principal honors students who maintained above a 2.0 GPA with a noble seat at graduation. And in college, students can earn credits, as long as they maintain test averages above failure.

This process fosters average people who get average grades. Students work hard to simply fall above the arbitrary pass-fail line. People rather pass (barely) than admit defeat. Passing allows you to get credits, avoid embarrassment, and graduate. What does failing get you? So then I ask the question: 65% & shiny sticker or 59% & F? Choose the latter.

Learning from your mistakes and persevering is essential to success.

Learning from your mistakes and persevering is essential to success. Photo courtesy of Pixabay

I want to be an outlier. Outliers learn the most and progress the fastest.

Recognizing failure is a vital part of an individual’s journey towards self-actualization and development. Failing is essential to growth. “You’ll struggle to find a great invention that wasn’t preceded by a series of failures.” Of course, not all failures are created equal. People fail for all sorts of reasons: laziness, priorities, effort, incomprehension, and critical errors. You may not learn as much from errors rooted in a lack of internal motivation. Rather, it is best to fail at things you can not prevent without having experience. These are the biggest life lessons.

So why then do we stop people from failing early on? Why do we hold them right above the water until we release them into the real world?

Mediocrity is inbred in our society. The shiny stickers and external support provide the perfect amount of comfort for an average civilization. But we need to be moving in one direction or the other. It is impossible to tread forever. I argue that the ordinary school system does a poor job of teaching students the proper way to fail, as well as how to improve.

We all should have failed more in school. The time and setting are ideal, the consequences were minimal, and the only thing in jeopardy was our social standing for the day. If only I understood this sooner.

Learning from failure in business

Outside of the classroom, failure has really real consequences. Stickers are replaced with pink slips as people lose their livelihoods due to shortcomings.

In the business world, a 75 percent (average) means absolutely nothing. “Earning” a 75 percent from your work will cost you 100 percent of the job.

That simple concept took me two years and potentially thousands of dollars to truly digest. The only way to understand this is to experience it. But as you enter the real business world, these experiences become more expensive, draining crucial time and money.

Fail as early and as quickly as possible.  This applies to both in the formal learning environment as well as in business development.

I define this as a fail loop: the period between starting something and reaching inevitable failure.

Those who are able to tighten this loop the fastest are at an extreme advantage. Tighter fail loops make for faster learning. Developing this is not easy, but those who do it well are best off.

So what did I take from this concept?

I will repeat what I said early on: failing is never your goal. But, as I hope I have demonstrated, it is better to fail outright and learn from your failure than to get stuck in between two arbitrary guidelines, while never admitting defeat.

And so, I present my failures…And I think I learned a thing or two from doing this. Hope this was not a complete failure, or maybe I don’t.

Try and make your own, you may learn something as well.

This post was originally featured on Medium and was republished with permission from the author.

In Business & Research, Teaching & Learning
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One Response to "Learning from failure: the paradox"

  1. avatar Kenny

    Well written. It’s inspiring. I am also hate the point failure, but sometimes we have to accept it and keep moving forward. Whatever you described well! Thanks for this article.

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